I want to examine the often cited proof text that Calvinism and Reformed Theology use as evidence that the spiritually dead can not resist the call of God in the story of Lazarus on John chapter 11. I want to begin by examining the argument of popular apologist and Calvinist author, James White.
James White, in a short video here, makes an extravagant emotional appeal that if Lazarus is not raised from the dead, and Jesus fails, then “scratch Christianity”. He further states, “Jesus did not whisper, but yelled loudly so that there would be no question about who was calling Lazarus”. White claims that this event is a fulfillment of John chapter 5, where Jesus said that the day would come where the dead would hear the voice of God and be raised from the dead. “Lazarus did not choose to become undead” says White. White contends that since Lazarus could not have said no to be resurrected from physical death, that this is a legitimate proof text to show that the Christian can not say no to God’s voice while spiritually dead.
Calvinist Charles Spurgeon writes about Lazarus,
The helpless paralytic cannot begin his own restoration. Enmity against God cannot choose love for him. The dead corpse of Lazarus could have no agency in recalling the vital spirit into itself. After Christ’s almighty power restored it, the living man could respond to the Savior’s command and rise and come forth.
Likewise, Arthur Pink says,
“The hour is coming, and now is, when the dead shall hear the voice of the Son of God: and they that hear shall live.” Lazarus in the grave, raised to life by the word of Christ, gives us a perfect illustration of God’s mighty work of grace in the hearts of His elect.”
Calvinist apologist, Loraine Boettner opines that,
Fallen man is as dead spiritually as Lazarus was dead physically until Jesus cried with a loud voice, “Lazarus, come forth!” He is as dead spiritually as the Pharisee Nicodemus, to whom Jesus said, “Except a man be born again, he cannot see the kingdom of God” (Jn. 3:3). Christ said to the Pharisees, “Why do ye not understand my speech? even because ye cannot hear my word” (Jn. 8:43). Apart from divine assistance, no one can hear the invitation or put forth the will to come to Christ.
A popular Southern Baptist website sums up the Calvinist interpretation of the story of Lazarus as follows,
The example of Jesus calling Lazarus from the grave is a common popular illustration that calvinists [sic] use to illustrate the phenomenon they call regeneration prior to repentance and saving faith. Calvinism teaches that God effectually calls the lost man with a dead heart and deaf ears to life so that he can THEN repent and believe and be saved. Calvinists use Jesus’ command outside Lazarus’ tomb to illustrate the power of the effectual call in regeneration; “Lazarus come forth” and he came to life. When God calls the elect to life, they like Lazarus have new life and are born again and begin to live as a child of God.
My point is that in this system the gospel is NOT THE POWER OF GOD UNTO CONVERSION because it has no power to save the unregenerate; only God can do that because the unregenerated person CANNOT or WILL NOT repent and believe to be saved. The unregenerate is like Lazarus in the tomb; he is dead and lifeless and has deaf ears that cannot hear the gospel.
The entire problem with comparing Lazarus’ physical death and PHYSICAL resurrection to spiritual death and subsequently a spiritual resurrection is that the PHYSICAL resurrection was NOT MEANT to convey the raising of a SPIRITUALLY DEAD person to everlasting life, but:
1. To show Christ’s power over death and to symbolize His own physical resurrection from the dead (John 11:25, John 2:19, Acts 2:24).
2. To show to future resurrection of those who DIE IN CHRIST (John 6:40, Matt 22:30, Phil 3:11, 2 Tim 2:18, Rev 20:5-6).
3. That a believer does not have to wait until being physically resurrected for the assurance of salvation because Christ IS the resurrection.
To prove that Lazarus is a worthy example of Christ irresistibly saving a person spiritually dead in sin, it would obviously be necessary to prove that Lazarus was dead in sin otherwise the analogy is useless. However, Lazarus was ALREADY SAVED-of which Martha seems to agree (John 11:24)- when Christ raised him PHYSICALLY from the dead, so it is an erroneous analogy for the Calvinist to use the example of a SAVED DEAD PERSON as analogous to how Christ “quickens” a SPIRITUALLY DEAD person to life everlasting.
This then would force the Calvinist to conclude (as some have) that Lazarus was not saved until Christ raised him from the dead. This presents 2 problems with Calvinist theology. First of all, it conflicts with Hebrews 9:27, “And as it is appointed unto men once to die, but after this the judgment”. It would have Christ saving someone after they have died in their sinful state. Secondly, the Calvinists always affirm that God only loves His elect, and no others, but if Lazarus was not saved until he was raised from the dead, then John 11:36 presents a problem for the Calvinist here: “Then said the Jews, Behold how he loved him!”. Christ loved Lazarus BEFORE He raised him from the dead. Thus this would refute the Calvinist belief that God does not love the sinner, and proves that God can love someone prior to their salvation if in fact Lazarus was spiritually dead in sin. If the Calvinist objects that Lazarus was indeed elect, of course God would have loved him, then this serves to prove a point in which some Calvinists often object to that a person is regenerated and guaranteed salvation before they are actually saved (which would seem to be implied by the Calvinist view of predestination). It nevertheless displays a blatant contradiction in Calvinist theology that God does not love the person who is dead in sin.
Thus either the Calvinist has to admit that Lazarus was saved, or they must admit to a flaw in their theology about who Christ actually loves in addition to attempting to reconcile Christ bringing a spiritually dead person to everlasting life after he died in his sin. If Lazarus was saved, however, the Calvinist must deal with the erroneous analogy of Christ quickening an ALREADY SAVED person to life physically, to justify their theology of God quickening a spiritually dead person in his LOST state PRIOR to him actually being saved.
Any attempt to use Lazarus as an example of God quickening a person who supposedly has the inability to respond to or hear the gospel fails in light of Lazarus’ condition, and to add such a bogus private interpretation is an insult to the purpose behind Christ raising Lazarus from the dead:
“Thou fool, that which thou sowest is not quickened, except it die:” 1 Cor 15:36
Another problem that the Calvinist face with this view of Lazarus is Jesus’ answer to the Sadducees about who a wife will belong to among several husbands in the resurrection (Mark 12:18-23) to which Christ replied in verses 26-27,
And as touching the dead, that they rise: have ye not read in the book of Moses, how in the bush God spake unto him, saying, I am the God of Abraham, and the God of Isaac, and the God of Jacob? He is not the God of the dead, but the God of the living: ye therefore do greatly err.
Now if the Calvinists contend that God reserves the elect unto salvation while they are spiritually dead in sin until the “effectual call” is given unto the spiritually dead person, and like Lazarus, he then comes to spiritual life, then this effectually makes God the God of the dead.
The Calvinist often sites the story of Lazarus with John 5:21-25, where Jesus states,
For as the Father raiseth up the dead, and quickeneth them; even so the Son quickeneth whom he will. For the Father judgeth no man, but hath committed all judgment unto the Son: That all men should honour the Son, even as they honour the Father. He that honoureth not the Son honoureth not the Father which hath sent him. Verily, verily, I say unto you, He that heareth my word, and believeth on him that sent me, hath everlasting life, and shall not come into condemnation; but is passed from death unto life. Verily, verily, I say unto you, The hour is coming, and now is, when the dead shall hear the voice of the Son of God: and they that hear shall live.
The first thing to notice about this passage which is in direct conflict with Calvinist theology is that the raising of the dead comes before the quickening: “For as the Father raiseth up the dead, and quickeneth them”. In Calvinist theology, the quickening always comes before the actually life giving spiritual resurrection.
Secondly, the Calvinists take the phrase “quickeneth whom he will” as an indication of God’s selecting only some to salvation. The verse does not offer any exclusions to parse out this quickening to a particular set of elect. The “whom he will” is in verse 24, “He that heareth my word AND BELIEVETH ON HIM THAT SENT ME, hath everlasting life”.
Thirdly, Jesus is specifically referring to a final resurrection from PHYSICAL death. John 5:28-29 clarifies this passage,
Marvel not at this: for the hour is coming, in the which ALL that are in the graves shall hear his voice, And shall come forth; they that have done good, unto the resurrection of life; and they that have done evil, unto the resurrection of damnation.
For the Calvinist to argue that this verse applies to all who are spiritually dead being resurrected unto spiritual life, they would also have to argue that we are in spiritual instead of literal graves. Furthermore, if the Calvinists were consistent with their definition of ‘all’, then this verse would show that only ‘some’ hear the voice of God. But if only some hear the voice of God, then this verse would mean that there are those of the ‘some’ that hear the voice of God that end up awakening to the resurrection of damnation!
Fourthly, although the truth of salvation is certainly stated in John 5, that belief is necessary, and one can certainly make a useful analogy in a spiritually dead person hearing the voice of God and responding by faith unto salvation, there is nothing in this passage that indicates mans inability to do so that requires the quickening of God first by an irresistible effectual calling nor that the spiritually dead have the inability to hear the voice of God. In fact, John 5 expressly states that the dead as well as those saved in Christ hear the voice of God in John 5:29. Moreover, using the same logic used by the Calvinist in the definition of verses that use the type of “rise from the dead” language, we read in Ephesians 5:14 the command for a person to wake himself up and THEN Christ gives them light. Thus this explains why the Calvinist must force John 11 and John 5 together, when neither of the 2 passages have any allusion to the other, and are entirely different contexts.
And finally, to add the nail in the coffin of the Calvinist misinterpretation of John 5, we see the following verse that repudiate the doctrine of irresistible grace and determinism,
He was a burning and a shining light: and ye were willing for a season to rejoice in his light. (v 35) Search the scriptures; for in them ye think ye have eternal life: and they are they which testify of me. And ye will not come to me, that ye might have life. (vss 39-40).
Notice that Jesus did NOT say “Ye CAN NOT come”, He said “Ye WILL NOT come”.
There is absolutely no justification for using the story of Lazarus as a proof text for the Calvinist doctrines of Total Inability, Irresistible Grace, and their man-made distinction of the “effectual call” (The distinction that God generally calls all to salvation, but only enables the elect to respond). The story of Lazarus is a beautiful picture of Christ’s power over and conquering of death (1 Cor 15:56-57). It is a shame that this passage has been given the emphasis that has been imposed upon the text by Reformed theologians. Adam not only heard God’s voice, but responded to God in the Garden of Eden while he was considered spiritually dead in sin (Gen 3:9). Such a view diminishes mans clear responsibility to willingly turn to Christ in repentance by faith and presents a gospel that is not supported by Scripture.